Archive for April, 2010

The Art of the Steal

Monday, April 26th, 2010

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Don Argott’s entertaining documentary “The Art of Steal” is a passionate, if one-sided, examination of the convoluted history and looming fate of an unparalleled collection of modern art currently housed in Pennsylvania. Framed as a decades-long battle between an iconoclastic inventor with a brilliant eye and a horde of uncultured barbarians hell-bent on commercial exploitation, the movie dangles all kinds of questions concerning the law, public access to priceless art, and the unchecked influence of the powerful.

Dr. Albert Barnes made a fortune with the development of the antiseptic Argyrol, and used his wealth to assemble a jaw-dropping trove of canvases by the likes of Matisse, Picasso, Renoir, Cezanne, Monet, Seurat, Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Modigliani. “The Art of the Steal” hints at the scope and value of the art in the Barnes collection, but only one abbreviated sequence near the beginning of the movie really addresses a sampling of the paintings themselves, superficially commenting on pieces including Seurat’s “Models,” and Van Gogh’s “Portrait of the Postman Joseph Roulin.”

Heavy on talking heads, “The Art of the Steal” desperately needs a strong section more comprehensibly detailing the physical space of the Lower Merion Township location that houses the artworks. Argott relies on a number of tantalizing photographs of Barnes’ fascinating “wall ensemble” arrangement technique, but the grounds, which contain an arboretum teeming with botanical specimens, are virtually ignored (curious, because so much of the argument is focused solely on the relocation of the art to a proposed space on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway). The current incarnation of Barnes administrators claims that the original display configurations of the art, as well as the scale of the rooms, will be recreated in the new space.

“The Art of the Steal” is by no means perfect, and many viewers will begin to long for more personal information and history about Barnes, who is glimpsed throughout the film in clips of color home movie footage. Argott acknowledges all the pertinent facts relating to the eccentric curmudgeon’s disdain for the conservative Philadelphia establishment, but following the introductory exposition, the post-will assault is moved front and center for the rest of the running time. In his day, Barnes detested Philly fat-cat Moses Annenberg, and the contemporary villains materialize in the form of a trio of grant-making agencies: the Pew Charitable Trusts, the Lenfest Foundation, and the Annenberg Foundation. The devious dealings of the foundations, abetted by a group of oily politicians, are chronicled with relish.

Argott uses chapter-like headings to organize the film as a procedural, and the application of the tactic helps to build suspense as we wait to hear a judge’s decision on the fate of the Barnes Foundation collection. By this time, however, the theme of greedy corporate interests dismantling a man’s will has been looping on repeat long enough. Additionally, Argott misses several opportunities to thoughtfully explore the arguments and viewpoints of the opposition, content to stick with title card inserts informing us that so-and-so declined repeated invitations to be interviewed. Had the filmmaker been willing and able to ponder the most reasonable dimensions of the arguments from both sides, “The Art of the Steal” could have been great instead of good.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 4/26/10.


Monday, April 19th, 2010

Movie review by Greg Carlson

The latest movie to draw some fire for depicting envelope-pushing levels of carnage, mayhem, violence, and profanity – much of it courtesy of pre-teen character Hit-Girl – “Kick-Ass” should see plenty of ink on opinion pages in the days to come. Based on the comic series written by Mark Millar and illustrated by John Romita, Jr., “Kick-Ass” is a wannabe satire never quite bright enough to present a cogent argument explaining the premise that there are consequences for actions taken by “real” people who choose to behave like superheroes. Director Matthew Vaughn wallows in the explosions and curses well past the point at which “Kick-Ass” morphs into the very thing it was purportedly trying to skewer.

High school nobody Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson) orders a green and yellow wetsuit and takes to the streets as the masked vigilante of the title. Following a period of recuperation after a disastrous encounter with two toughs who batter and stab him, Dave is caught on video attempting to assist a victim of street violence. The uploaded footage goes viral, and Kick-Ass sets up a MySpace page to handle the tidal wave of interest in his exploits. If Vaughn intended to say something about the use of social media in the service of post-Bat-Signal identity construction, the message gets lost as soon as Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage) and Hit-Girl (Chloe Moretz) enter the frame and start slaughtering baddies.

Narratively speaking, the colorful father-daughter team emasculates Kick-Ass, and Vaughn struggles to make room for the genre’s de rigueur expositional back-stories/origin myths as well as cram in a parade of tedious scenes setting up a villainous crime boss (Mark Strong), whose son (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) becomes Red Mist, yet another costumed hero added to the mix. The closer we get to the end of the movie, the more Vaughn amplifies the shocks. The filmmaker shamelessly imitates pop culture gleaner extraordinaire Quentin Tarantino, scoring off-speed, blade and pistol gymnastic showdowns to Ennio Morricone.

Vaughn also carries over and amplifies some of the comic’s worst impulses, including a casual homophobia played broadly for laughs. The movie does not use the other “F” word as abundantly as Millar’s series, but when Dave pretends to be gay in order to get close to his crush, the stereotypes pile up quickly, and Vaughn makes certain to telegraph relief when our protagonist is allowed to “prove” he is straight. It’s a departure from the comic, in which Dave gets a knuckle sandwich instead of the girl.

Only Nicolas Cage maneuvers the script with a sense of timing commensurate with the kind of winking irreverence that should have been the target of all the actors. His mentally unstable, revenge-driven gun nut is significantly more sympathetic than Millar’s original humorless brainwasher, whose rightist rhetoric while training Hit-Girl is absent from the screen adaptation. Cage is only upstaged by Moretz’s Hit-Girl by way of her sewer-mouth artistry, status as a juvenile, and way with a blade. The movie belongs to her and that is also its liability, since the title is “Kick-Ass” and not “Hit-Girl.”

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 4/19/10.


Monday, April 12th, 2010

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Noah Baumbach continues to develop his best instincts as a storyteller and filmmaker in “Greenberg,” an idiosyncratic Los Angeles-set character study of Ben Stiller’s title layabout, a dysfunctional carpenter in his early 40s. Tenaciously committed to difficult personalities, painfully awkward interactions, and the inability to negotiate much in the way of shared meaning with others, “Greenberg,” like several of Baumbach’s other films, embraces insecurity, failure, and regret the way that so many studio-released romantic comedies utilize madcap coincidence, forced charm, and opposites fighting mutual attraction.

Stiller’s Roger Greenberg returns to LA from New York following a stint in a mental hospital. Holing up in his wealthy brother’s empty Hollywood spread while the family vacations in Vietnam, Greenberg busies himself with a doghouse construction project for his sibling’s ailing German Shepherd. Because he does not drive, Greenberg relies on paid family assistant Florence Marr (Greta Gerwig) to chauffeur him where he needs to go. Inexplicably, the younger woman finds the repellent Greenberg appealing, despite his fussiness, his condescending attitude, and his lack of listening skills. Moments after they meet, Greenberg schools Florence on the nostalgic importance of Albert Hammond’s “It Never Rains in Southern California” and Baumbach makes the scene a miniature masterpiece showcasing Roger’s awfulness.

Gerwig’s background identifies her with the unfortunately named mumblecore genre/category, but unlike her performance as the title character in “Hannah Takes the Stairs,” a movie that Gerwig also co-wrote, Florence actually appears to be deliberately likable and sympathetic. Her mumblecore peers, including Mark Duplass (who also appears in “Greenberg”), often confront audiences with obnoxious, unpleasant, narcissistic creeps, but Baumbach resists the urge to make Greenberg completely despicable, and the casting of Stiller – whose ability to play hurt and humiliation have become a signature aspect of his onscreen persona – cuts the character some slack, deserved or not.

Besides Roger’s resemblance to Saul Bellow’s Moses Herzog (noted by several critics, including J. Hoberman and David Denby), “Greenberg” invites comparison to “Annie Hall,” and the movie quotes several moments and gags from Woody Allen’s classic, even though Baumbach’s creations inhabit a milieu decidedly less magical and romanticized. In addition to first-rate technical credits, including photography by the terrific Harris Savides, “Greenberg” bests many of its mumblecore relatives by way of Baumbach’s ability to present unlikable characters without succumbing to belligerence toward or contempt for the viewers willing to go along with the atypical choice.

Baumbach, who wrote the screenplay after developing the story with partner Jennifer Jason Leigh (who also appears in the movie as Greenberg’s ex-girlfriend), illustrates his lead character with greater confidence than he musters for Gerwig’s Florence. Florence’s passivity, uncertainty and self-reproach create a big hole that Greenberg fills with cruelty, and the resulting imbalance constitutes the film’s most uncomfortable strain. Baumbach literalizes Florence’s marginalized status as a servant to the wealthy extended Greenberg family in the first of several calamitous sexual encounters between Roger and Florence, when a lacerating parody of a horrible “first date,” or more accurately, “first encounter,” amplifies the gulf of privilege between them. Jessica Grose, in a “Slate” essay, calls the scene “brutish and contrived,” and whether one agrees with that assessment or not, “Greenberg” is a movie that stirs up complex emotions.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 4/12/10.

Clash of the Titans

Monday, April 5th, 2010

Movie review by Greg Carlson

As Perseus (Sam Worthington) arms himself to do battle with the Greek gods whose blood he shares, he picks up Bubo, the R2-D2-channeling clockwork owl that delighted children in the 1981 “Clash of the Titans.” A seasoned warrior tells Perseus to leave it, and only viewers of a certain age and disposition will even notice the fleeting reference to Ray Harryhausen’s original analog achievement. Even though Louis Leterrier’s remake fails to make room for Athena’s winged wind-up, the new “Clash of the Titans” incorporates a significant number of themes, ideas, plot points, and set pieces from director Desmond Davis’ original. Neither version quite does justice to the myths and legends upon which Beverly Cross’ hybridized screenplay was based, but younger and less discerning patrons will certainly purchase tickets to the party.

In the update, Liam Neeson is Perseus’ father Zeus, gravely passing judgment on humans with the same authority wielded by an ailing Laurence Olivier the first time around. Clad in lens-flare ready armor so shiny it nearly blinds, Zeus squares off against his wheezy, underworld sibling Hades, played by a stooping Ralph Fiennes in a dusky get-up and hairpiece that makes him look like a two-pack-a-day Spinal Tap roadie. Sadly, Danny Huston’s Poseidon sees his screen time reduced to a cameo, but Neeson, who barks the order to “Release the Kraken,” and Fiennes, who whispers “You have insulted powers beyond your comprehension” refuse to be upstaged by their unruly beards.

It is generous to give “Clash of the Titans” much, if any, credit for theological analogues to contemporary society, but the film’s conflict shows sinners in the hands of angry gods. Cities are divided between the fearful faithful and the arrogant apostates, while the pantheon of deities gazes down from a version of Mount Olympus tricked out with a floor that resembles Google Earth images. Conceptually, the limits of the Olympians’ power and their willingness to directly interact with humans spice up the action, but Leterrier labors unsuccessfully to balance the unwieldy number of characters, erring on the side of videogame battles involving Perseus and his cohorts.

The 2010 “Clash of the Titans” is more phallocentric than its predecessor, even though Gemma Arterton’s Io, a sort of fairy godmother/guardian angel to Perseus, fights alongside the boys. Io is also saddled with some of the movie’s most outrageously awful dialogue (to an agitated Perseus: “Calm your storm”) and Arterton deserves some kind of honor for believably wading through the muck. The film’s other significant female is damsel in distress Andromeda (Alexa Davalos), who at least communicates a smidgen of nobility in her willingness to be sacrificed to the Kraken before she is tied up and offered for dinner.

Medusa should have been a memorable female character, but Leterrier opts to render the gorgon as a computer-generated version of the serpentine Harryhausen design, building around the face of model Natalia Vodianova. Action trumps character, however, and Perseus’ showdown with Medusa and the Kraken climax are chaotic messes of vertiginous camera movement and choppy editing that provide almost no visual context or sense of space. Feverishly crammed in with so many reminders of the inaugural edition (scorpions, Calibos, Stygian Witches, Pegasus, etc.) these first-person thrill rides cannot disguise the movie’s wearisome similarity to so many other expensive fantasy entertainments.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 4/5/10.